3. Leadership and Humility

humility-depression-soupThe third attribute demonstrated by superior leaders is often the most elusive and under-appreciated.  The very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority.  It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think.  Our culture champions the loud, the bold, and the brazen.  I stated early on that we live in a self-centric society.  It’s the “me” generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, self-inflated, narcissistic, entitled, demanding instant gratification, and lacking any sense of personal responsibility.  This is the age of entitlement.  At the risk of sounding like somebody’s grandfather, today’s generation is vapid and superficial, placing more value on appearance than character.

I guess it’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble, unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self esteem or confidence.  But in truth, the opposite of confidence is uncertainty, not humility.  To be sure, the opposite of humility is egoism and arrogance.  There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.  It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, leaders are servants, and superior leaders have a heart for service.  But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes.  Here, servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization.  Through training, guidance, and the continuity of vision and direction they provide, humble leaders constantly strive to better others.

Humble leaders do not need to seek the spotlight of recognition.  In fact, no competent leader is anxious to impress people with his or her performance credentials.  Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to lead themselves to self-sufficiency.  Remember, the most effective leader is one who makes his own presence unnecessary.  Rather than seek personal recognition for the goals they accomplish, they make the success of others their path to personal achievement.

Humans are imperfect creatures, and there is nothing superhuman about superior leaders.  All are fallible, but as with most failings, it is the manner in which the shortfall is handled that sets effective leaders apart.  Leaders who forget or ignore their own weaknesses will inevitably fail.  Strong leaders are definite and decisive, but not inflexible.  They acknowledge and own the mistakes they make.  They do not perpetuate bad decisions out of ego or fear, but adapt to changing circumstances and know when to change their mind.  Character and trust is strengthened when leaders admit and take ownership of mistakes.

Humble leaders acknowledge and understand their limitations, and are vigilant in their efforts to mitigate their shortcomings.  Rather than feel threatened, they surround themselves with others whose skill sets compliment their own areas of weakness.  Keeping their egos in check, they put the strength and success of the team ahead of any desire for the personal spotlight.

Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility do not abuse their authority.  In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative.  To reuse an analogy, authority is like a sword.  Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or out of simple ignorance and inexperience.  The recently promoted have a dangerous tendency to let their newly bestowed title go straight to their heads.  They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust.  These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power.  Like trust and respect, true authority is earned, not bestowed.  Without it, the power of influence is superficial and stifled.

David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company.  A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”  Superior leaders, like Dave Packard, are humble, with a willingness to serve others first.  They embrace their weaknesses, and admit mistakes.

In my own place of business, we love to quote a customer who once said it best, “It is most important to be humble.”

Next Post:  Leadership and Courage

2. Leadership and Discipline

discipline-depression-strikeAs I wrote in my last post, personal discipline, as it contributes to strength of character, ensures we are guided by principle rather than emotion or personal desire.  In that context, self-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why this attribute has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment.  I read somewhere that judgment is the application of wisdom.  Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies or uncomfortable situations. It often requires great discipline to think before responding.  As Jimi Hendrix is famously quoted, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.”  Any situation that requires action, whether it is crisis, conflict, or moral failure (of self or others) necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Drawing on a distinction that will be further explored in a later post, leaders can and should be flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is another to compromise on matters of principle.  Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference and are of unwavering conviction.

Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and foundation of ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation (so as not to offend one group or another), any semblance of absolute “right” and “wrong” is obscured.  Right and wrong become a matter of convenience and opinion, lacking any moral or ethical bearing or even anything close to consensus.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe in.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in work groups or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement, and even the strongest leaders can and should be questioned and appropriately challenged.  Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course.  Fortunately, faith and trust are more important than belief.  People are far more willing to follow a disciplined leader they trust, particularly when they disagree.  However, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith – leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

It is important to remember that as leaders, we are also tasked with teaching.  It is quite common for managers to want to maintain personal control over every responsibility they are tasked to accomplish.  Our desire for perfection and to be needed often gets in the way of the greater goal we seek.  After all, even as children we’re taught, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.”  But as I said earlier, people need room to fail as well as succeed.  Superior leaders keep this bigger picture in mind, and delegate what doesn’t absolutely require their personal attention.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Most leaders have achieved their position by “doing.”  It takes courage to give up some of that control.  It takes discipline and a sense of humble acknowledgment that only through the achievement of those we lead will we as leaders truly become successful.

Next Post:  Leadership and Humility

Where are our leaders and why do they fail us?

What is it about this culture that we live in?  Just consider for a moment the TV shows we watch, the games we play, the behaviors and values we espouse and celebrate. Our entire society champions greed, rudeness, backstabbing, dishonesty, and entitlement – every self serving, “me” centered behavior you can think of. We view fair play and integrity as boring symbols of weakness.  Even morality is continually redefined and adapted according to whatever purpose or agenda we deem convenient and least offensive to the masses.

Is it any wonder?  Think about it.  Who are our role models, our leaders?  I read once that humans are the only creatures in nature who will willingly follow a poor leader.  Perhaps that’s because we tend to focus on the wrong attributes when accepting leaders.  We value credentials more than we do values; promises and speeches are confused with true strength of character and integrity.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where our role models and leaders repeatedly and consistently fail us and themselves.  Our daily news is filled with scandal and disgrace of people in leadership positions at every conceivable level.  Our political system is overflowing with leaders whose actions are driven not by a desire to help constituents or, heaven forbid, leave the world better than they found it, but by the darker personal ambitions born of narcissism, greed, revenge, sexual perversion, and the good old fashioned pursuit of power.  Personal agendas are self-focused, and party agendas are party focused.

As an ideological conservative, I believe in and support many of the values and positions of the Republican Party platform.  But let me be very, very clear here.  This blog is in no way intended to be a political statement.  Quite the contrary, I find myself disgusted with both the Republican and Democratic leadership in our country.  Both parties have been rocked with shameful scandal after scandal after scandal.  The lack of character and integrity, and indeed, even good judgment, is astounding to me.  No, my focus here is on the concept of strong and effective leadership, the application of which is equally relevant to both liberals and conservatives, and anyone else in a position to influence others.

So, where are our leaders?  What happened to the concept of character, where integrity takes priority over personal desires?  Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, leadership in our world through the gradual, cultural debasement of character, morality, and personal accountability, has largely lost its way.

Next Post – The Meaning of Leadership